Sterkenberg, J, and Knoppers, A  (2004)  'Dominant Discourses About Race/Ethnicity and Gender in Sport Practice and Performance', in International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 39 (3): 301 - 21

[Quite an openly gramscian piece this, unlike some of the other stuff written by this team. This one displays all the contradictions, double thinkings, special pleadings and assumptions required to uphold the Holy Writ of Stuart Hall and somehow use it to explain a messy complex reality].

 Real economic deprivation follows stereotyping in Holland based on ethnicity/race and gender. At the same time [!], group relations are used to give meaning to experience. The dominant ones support a hierarchy. Thus  'This discourse of white and male superiority often dominates the labour market' (301)  [only  'often'?]. The stereotypes are maintained in a number of discourses, including media accounts. Upholding them  'may not be a conscious process'-- for example white men just see their dominance as  'natural and self evident' [this lets people off the hook since no-one needs to be blamed, but are other political positions also  'unconscious', even radical oppositional ones? The mission of the wise pedagogue, helping people remove the scales from their eyes lurks here].

Sports media are dominated by white men. Sports coverage is popular which means that the media are potentially quite powerful in offering hegemonic discourses. A discourse is a series of constructions 'from a particular perspective', citing Fairclough  (302)  [presumably some version of a class perspective?]. Of course, there may be [must be?] resistance and alternate discourses constructed by subjected groups. However, these groups lack economic power. Nevertheless, sports coverage will feature multiple discourses, they are  'a "site of struggle"' (303).  [A nice mixture of Marxist perspectives here. The link with economic power reminds me of the classic formula that  'In every epoch, the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class' of the German Ideology, while the emphasis on struggle is the familiar and much more fashionable gramscian one. Instead of the need for a radical overthrow of the ruling classes, we can now do politics in a genteel academic way by analysing alternate discourses. Is the difference in economic power the main issue or not?].

There are many studies which look merely at the content of sports media, to examine coverage of women's sports and ethnic relations. Generally, the research finds that there are stereotypes, and a hierarchy. There is an important difference with sport, however since gender differences are formally structured into providing separate events  [an issue to which we shall turn in further discussion of whether discourses reflect practices, or are somehow independent variables]. In terms of the coverage of black athletes, themes such as their  'natural' ability seem common, and again this connects to the hierarchy of mental and manual labour. Such stereotyping partly arises because so many white males occupy important positions in the media. However, there are  'subconscious' sources of stereotyping as well  [so why don't we analyse them a bit more, especially to see how they are connected with fairly simple and conscious economic interests?].

Of course, there are contradictions  [opposing results from empirical research, which happened to be easily explained by smuggling in the marxist notion of contradiction and attaching it to the logical term]. Thus sometimes women sportspeople are portrayed in a positive way, sometimes black people are not described primarily in terms of their physicality  [and the McCarthy study is cited here]. However, more conventional stereotypes still persist, and, more sneakily, the more positive depictions are still balanced by unhelpful ones -- for example, women athletes also have to be sexy.  [This is known in the trade as  'Mulvey 2', following the progression of Laura Mulvey's work from a simple combination of Hollywood media as uniformly and necessarily sexist, to a recognition that there are contradictions and exceptions to  'the male gaze', to a further argument that these contradictions and exceptions are still part of overall sexism].

 Little is known about how audiences read media representations, though. Social context, and the availability of a number of other discourses, seems to be important. Not only that, but gramscian work insists that there must be some sort of opposition  [or else we must face the prospect that capitalism has won -- but did not Gramsci himself,  actually in someone else's words, urge just to balance our pessimism of the intellect with optimism of the will?]. Powerful white men may read the media in the  'preferred' way, and this reading might look simply obvious. However, oppositional readings can arise, and so can negotiated readings  [blow me down! We are back to Frank Parkins' old three-stage model, based on logical possibilities not empirical findings] McCarthy found that black men can resist dominant commentary, for example, and another study  [Duncan and Brummett  (1993)] found that women were also capable of making  'ironic and sarcastic remarks about the presented images and the commentary' (305)  [Shades of the famous study of Dallas viewers by Ang].

 Readings therefore arise from complex circumstances. Immigrants may differ from non immigrants, different ethnic minorities might differ in their readings  [and students might differ in their readings from normal people -- which seems to remain largely overlooked in this study, despite the fact that all the respondents were students]. There are other sources of perceptions apart from the media, arising from other social institutions. However, the media is likely to be very important and to inform discourses from other institutions.  [However, presumably the media still do not inform oppositional readings?]

 The empirical research looked at an number of discourses on gender, ethnicity and sport, with the intention to see if they overlapped with 'hegemonic media discourses'  ['hegemonic' meaning simply dominant ideological, or representing an necessary cultural struggle?]. A small group of students, both 'white Native - Dutch' and 'black Surinam - Dutch' were recruited and interviewed  (12 and 11 students respectively). 10 were women, 13 men, and mostly the black students had lived in Holland for 10.5 years. Semi structured interviews took place.

 The data were analysed to see if themes had emerged, and these were guided by the research questions, but also adjusted by the data --  'open coding  (Glaser, 1978)' (306).  [This sort of empirical research would offend an orthodox Marxist, of course -- why root around in what will only be variants of ideological 'epiphenomenal' positions?]. Groups were then divided into white and black, and men and women. The researchers deliberately looked for 'contradictory evidence'  (307), and sought to classify various data into discourses, including any new discourses.  [This all looks a bit empiricist to me].

 A number of discourses emerged from the study. The most common one was:

 'A Natural Physicality Discourse'. In terms of race, black athletes was seen as having different physical characteristics, by both black and white respondents. They were stronger, had different muscles, bones, body build, or whatever. Exceptions were rare. Oddly, many respondents seem to think that as bodies change in the future, so would black overachievement in sport. Overachieving white athletes in sports such as weightlifting and tennis, were not seen as having different bodies. In terms of gender, both black and white participants assumed that men were physically stronger than women naturally. This justified separate sports for the two genders, but not for the two races. Again, exceptions were rare. Contradictions included the one over separate sports. Natural differences were supposed to explain more of the gender differences than the racial ones.

 'Mental Discourses'. This was also common, and some examples were given even after a formal denial of such differences between black and white people. Mental differences including an ability to organise, a lack of the keen, different attitudes. Sometimes these were developed as a result of particular circumstances  [as were physical differences, from slavery], such as the need to find a way to college  (for Americans). Black students tended to stress mental attitudes in particular, especially a lack of confidence, or a competitive instinct. In terms of gender, mental differences were less common, although two female black students did say that 'men and women think differently'  (310) or have different passions.

 'The Cultural Tradition Discourse'. Black people's culture affected their participation, in running, rather than tennis for example. Only one respondent argued it was possible to escape effects of culture. Tradition was also used to explain [actually,  'to justify' (311)] female patterns of participation. Separation of the genders was generally seen as good, although some mixed gender sports were also popular. Again, this did not extend to the separation of races.

 "The Economic Discourse'. Economic differences between white and black people were seen as responsible, affecting involvement in expensive sports, for example -- running is cheap, tennis is expensive. Things might be changing, but it is still rare to see black people as prosperous. No such economic discourse was found in explanations of differences of gender.

What do these findings tell us about hegemony? The natural physicality discourse was common, sometimes combined with the others. This does overlap with  'a dominant sport media discourse about race' (313)  [although McCarthy et al found it was less common]. The natural mentality discourse also overlapped, mostly in the way the White groups used the arguments. Black students did occasionally use this discourse to blame past patterns of culture and education. In gender terms, there was less of an overlap with the media mentality discourses, perhaps because  'the natural physical discourse about gender was seen as the most explanatory' (313).

 The respondents had another discourse that was not reflected in sports media discourse -- the arguments that certain mental attitudes differ. In particular, white students tended to view black students as having a positive mental attitude which could be combined with hard work to produce success. This is important locally, in Holland, perhaps, but less common in sport media. This  '"hard work theme' (313)  "may be part of a negotiated reading' [this could be read as a desperate attempt to reclaim it for hegemony?]. The hard work seemed might be responsible for the widespread admiration for Michael Jordan. This hard work theme could also be interpreted  'as white resistance to hegemonic  (physical) discourse that stereotypes immigrants in a negative way' (314). [This is the first time we have heard of white resistance of this rather liberal kind. Where does it come from? Is it simply a discourse that you would find among students?]

 American media may dominate here. There are differences between Dutch and American media discourses, however. Yet it could be that respondents were referring to the American media discourses, and black American athletes. A variable here might be whether the groups watch more Dutch or more American sports coverage  [a bit late to have discovered this problem?]. It seems that the Dutch media  'tend to use a natural physicality discourse more often', which could explain non-resisting responses by the Surinam-Dutch students. Surinam-Dutch athletes are more common in Dutch sport media.  [Real convoluted special pleading here!].

Coakley explains black over-achievement in athletics as a combination of history, and the existence of only a few opportunities, and black students in this study echoed those  [I'm not all sure what is being argued here! Black students agree with academic accounts? Academic accounts are also examples of hegemonic discourses? The whole thing seems designed to respond to the disappointing finding that black students in this sample are not simply responding with hegemonic or oppositional readings]. White people in this study also attract a few negative comments, including that they don't necessarily work hard or enter particular sports!

There is a methodological problem too.  'In part these discourses may have been elicited by the interviewer who asked specifically about white over - and under - representation' (314).  [Along comes this methodological problem, just in time to explain the puzzlingly critical commentary on white underachievement]. Perhaps it would have been best to look at only black representation  [certainly, if you want to maintain a simple view that white culture is always seen as superior in sports media]. Cultural tradition was used more conventionally, to explain gender differences, usually in combination with the natural physicality discourse  [in other words culture simply follows physical differences?]. [Thank goodness! Conventional hegemony still seems to hold up with gender!] 

Hall says there must be contradictions, and the study found some  [no surprises here then]. For example, it is not clear whether or ideologies create structures all the other way around. Gender differences in separate sport were seen as a result of ideological physicality discourses. However, this ideology was not used to argue for separate black-and-white sports. When it came to discussing gender, the existing separation between the genders was taken as the starting point, but not with racial differences.  'The respondents seem to be searching for reasons to argue why the existing structure should not be changed' [which raises doubts about the whole empirical exercise, of course -- respondents were supposed to be simply giving their naive and sincere views]. Existing structures may have influenced discourses.

Other factors might have influenced discourses too, including the globalised American media and its specific concerns with African-Americans. The American conception of race is not used in the same way as it is in Holland --'... an ethnicity paradigm informs dominant Dutch discourses', and the context is provided by immigration.  [Just in case you might be tempted to consider Dutch discourse as more liberal than American discourse, however, the authors explain that the notion of ethnicity arises from a discomfort with Dutch colonialism]. Thus  'the use of words in interviews such as  "race" and  "black/white"  by the researchers may have place the focus on American instead of Dutch athletes' (316). Dutch interpretations might use different classifications.

Gender discourses are likely to be less different at the local and global level, however. But Dutch differences are important, and in particular Dutch schools have made a real effort with  'non-competitive and mixed gender competition' (316). [What? Liberal reforms have made a difference?]. Experiences at school might differ from television representations. However, this experience did not minimise the natural physicality discourse -- perhaps experience was overwhelmed by national and global media?

Overall, there is some support for the view that the media do inform hegemonic discourses, yet there was evidence of a negotiated reading. There is more overlap with discourses about gender. The structure of sport seems to be important as well, as providing resources for alternative discourses. The focus of the actual study perhaps also directed more attention to white culture than would be the case normally, and the use of terms such as 'race' raises problems in Holland. However, luckily,  'The current study is... exploratory in nature... [and]... Further research... is needed before any definite conclusions can be made' (317).

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